Kamila Shamsie Home Fire

What happens to those left behind when men go off to fight? This electrifying novel is Pakistan-raised, London-based Kamila Shamsie’s seventh. In her acknowledgements, she says she was inspired by Sophocles’ story of Antigone, the young woman who defies the king’s order that her brother remain unburied on the field of battle.

However, this story of the Pasha and Lone families in contemporary London, Syria, Pakistan and the US also has more than a touch of Romeo and Juliet.The power of family ties infuses the novel – family versus career, versus self-preservation, versus politics, versus jihad.

Home Fire, which was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, opens with Isma Pasha being interrogated at London’s Heathrow Airport as she prepares to board a plane to the US, where she will undertake her PhD – studies interrupted by the deaths of her mother and grandmother that forced her to become a surrogate parent to her younger brother and sister, 12-year-old twins Pavaiz and Aneeka.

Now the twins are 19, old enough to fend for themselves. But first she must endure hours of intrusive questions from officials that range from “Do you consider yourself British?” (she was born and raised in London) to her views on the division of Iraq, suicide bombers, and The Great British Bake Off.

We soon learn that this interrogation is not simply because she is a Muslim, but because of the past actions of her father, and the more recent choices of her brother Pavaiz.

Her father died while being taken to Guantanamo. We are not told what drove Abil Pasha towards jihadism; Isma sees it as simply one of a succession of enterprises to which he turned his hand: “guitarist, salesman, gambler, con man, jihadist– but he was most consistent in the role of absentee father”.

The consequences for the family were not just the loss of a husband and father, but the attention of the police. On one occasion, the police take away a photograph album Abil Pasha has sent to Pavaiz with the inscription: “When you’re old enough, my son.” When it is eventually returned to the boy, the pictures of his father with his jihadist comrades have been removed.

Pavaiz is blessed with acute hearing and dreams of being a sound engineer. Aneeka feels the connection with her twin acutely, but now she is studying law she spends more and more time away from home. Pavaiz sees the break-up of their household as a kind of betrayal, a decision that has been made without him. So when Farooq appears, a man of “instant glamour” who speaks of his father as a hero who “understood that a man has larger responsibilities than the ones his wife and mother want to chain him to”, Pavaiz is ready to listen.

Entwined with this story of the Pasha siblings is the story of the Lone family. The Pashas regard controversial MP Karamat Lone with contempt for failing to help them find answers when Abil Pasha died, but now Karamat has been made the country’s first Muslim Home Secretary. His son Eamonn, a drifter living on his mother’s money, falls hard for the beautiful Aneeka.

From this moment the fates of the two families become bound together in an inevitable trajectory towards tragedy.

Shamsie’s last two novels have looped back and forth through history – from Nagasaki in 1941 to the US in 2002 in Burnt Shadows(shortlisted for the Orange Prize) and from Turkey in 515BC to Pakistan in 1930 in A God in Every Stone.

In contrast, Home Fires is compressed into a matter of months. Shamsie reveals the intimate – and conflicting – worlds of each of her five protagonists with enormous skill. The effect is more immediate and heartbreaking than any headline, and shows with devastating power how ordinary people can be caught up in the unthinkable.

This review was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 22 September 2017.

Hannah Kent The Good People

Set in a remote village in County Kerry, Ireland, in the years 1825 and 1826, Hannah Kent’s second novel reiterates some of the themes of her first: like her much-praised debut, Burial Rites, at its heart are the hardships of 19th-century rural life, hardships amplified for women on their own.

However, where Burial Rites focussed on one woman, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, and was propelled by her approaching execution, The Good People focusses on not one but three women, and their efforts to care for the crippled boy Micheál.

The novel opens with the death of Nóra’s husband, Martin, who has simply dropped dead working in the fields. In their tiny cabin, Nóra and Martin have been looking after their daughter’s child, the sickly, fractious Micheál, who can neither speak nor walk.

Nóra cannot manage their smallholding and care for Micheál on her own, so she goes to the hiring fair at Killarney – the nearest town of any size – and returns with Mary, a strong, hard-working girl from a large family. Mary does the washing and cooking and milking, churns the butter, and becomes the boy’s full-time carer. It’s an endless and thankless task, and Mary’s days pass in a haze of exhaustion:

She had never felt so tired. Mary had thought that the winter days, with their lull in labour and their quiet, unfriendly weather, would be easeful after her term of working through harvest. Those days had been unceasing. She had fetched and flailed and stooped until she felt she would die, until she was spangled with chaff and her hands bled from handling flax. But the child exhausted her in a different way. He tortured her with constant, shrill needfulness. Sometimes it seemed that he screamed his throat raw and no amount of soothing would quiet him.

Nance is the local ‘handy woman’, a combination of herbalist, midwife and mediator with the unseen. And it is the unseen – the Good People, the fairies who populate the valley and the imaginations of its inhabitants – that dominates the novel.

Despite their name, the Good People generally bring misfortune – cows refusing to give milk, chickens going off the lay, stillborn babies, illness and death can all be wrought by Them (the pronoun is always capitalised when referring to the fairies).

At every turn, it seems, the Good People must be appeased and dissuaded from meddling in the villagers’ lives. They dislike iron, for example, so fireside tongs left crossed over a baby’s cradle will ensure the fairies leave the child well alone; they also dislike fire, so should a person be suspected of being a changeling, application of a red-hot poker could frighten the fairy out of them.

When the sickly Micheál cannot be healed in the usual manner, by liberal applications of potatoes and buttermilk, and when first the doctor and then the priest say they can do nothing for him, Nóra comes to believe that the Good People are to blame. The boy in her care is not her grandson at all but a changeling, a fairy left by the Good People who have taken the real Micheál.

And so she calls in Nance.

In her afterword Hannah Kent notes that the bones of her story are based on real events. Irish folklore is rich and complex, and flourished in a harsh world where people survived hand to mouth. Butter is churned but never eaten — it is sold to pay the landlord. Doctors are distant and expensive, and even a visit from the priest requires coin to pay for it. Education is something gained from working in the fields and knowledge comes from the gossips who hang around the village well. (Naturally there is no running water in these houses with rammed earth floors and straw-filled windows.)

The accumulation of detail of the daily lives of the characters creates a world that is both recognisable and eerily strange. Despite the familiarity of the witch-trial trope – for surely this is where the story is heading – Kent renders it with a freshness and sympathy that is irresistible.

It’s difficult to read The Good People without comparing it to Burial Rites. Ultimately The Good People has a bleaker feel to it, albeit with a more resilient ending. If Burial Rites was a novel of dispossession and injustice, it was also a novel driven by passion. The Good People operates in a different key, its story driven by poverty, illness and desperation.

Above all, this is a novel about the love for a child, and the lengths that Nóra goes to for her grandson are both shocking and deeply moving. Perhaps this is where the Good People truly reside – inside ourselves, embodying our deepest fears and desires.

This review originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books on 27 July 2017.

On editing

People most often associate editing with things like spelling and grammar – getting rid of double negatives, tidying up dangling participles and making sure accommodation is spelt correctly.

All these things are important, of course, but for book editors working with fiction and creative non-fiction, they are but the tip of the iceberg – relatively straightforward matters compared to diagnosing a manuscript’s structural problems, checking for consistency of voice and internal logic, determining whether the story begins in the right place, if the characters are credible, the timeline plausible and whether the reader has been given too much or too little background information. Above all, this kind of editing is about understanding the author’s intention and setting about finding ways to assist the author to realise it.

It’s a process that requires empathy and imagination as well as technical knowledge of how stories work, and it’s not often that editors get together to discuss their craft.

At the beginning of May 2017 I was one of three mentors of a select group of mid-career book editors at the Residential Editorial Program, a week-long intensive development program held at Mt Eliza, on the shores of Port Phillip Bay.

The REP first ran in 1999 and has been held every two years since, with the exception of this year, which was run after a three-year break. Funding is always tight for a program like this, and it’s nothing short of a minor miracle that it has been able to continue with support from the Australia Council and the Australian Publishers Association.

It’s a unique program that focuses on editing fiction and creative non-fiction and on editors at mid-career. While there are numerous programs covering the basics of editing (many of them run by institutions such as RMIT, Sydney University and UTS, among many others), the REP is the only one for mid-career editors.  The centrepiece of the program is the opportunity to workshop the edit of an unpublished manuscript – a rare opportunity indeed for an editor, and testament to the generosity of the authors who have allowed early drafts of their work to be used in the program over the years. The workshops are complemented by guest speakers, which this year included author, editor and publisher Sophie Cunningham, authors Jared Thomas, Ellen van Neerven and Maxine Beneba Clarke, publishers Eva Mills and Robert Watkins, and editor Nadine Davidoff.

Authors understand how important editors are to making their work the best it can be, but it’s not something that’s well understood in the broader publishing industry, where it’s more likely to be sales and marketing personnel who get the status and higher salaries within publishing companies. With some notable exceptions, the trend for publishers’ editorial budgets is down, not up.

As publishers squeeze editorial resources, increasingly authors are turning to freelance editors to fine-tune their manuscripts before submission. (Should you be looking for a freelance editor for your work, may I recommend the Freelance Editors Network to you.)

It’s a contrast to the situation in the US. Among the REP’s guest speakers was Annabel Blay, recipient of the 2015–16 Beatrice Davis Editorial Fellowship, a biennial award for an Australian editor to spend 10 weeks in New York pursuing a research project. Annabel set out to investigate how developmental and structural editing was done in the US.

Developmental editing is exactly what it sounds like – an editor helping an author develop a manuscript, exploring ideas, characters, themes and plots. Structural editing generally focuses on what the author has already created, and whether all the elements are working as they should.

Annabel’s account of US publishing and editing was fascinating (and here’s the link if you’d like to read her full report, Developing ourselves, developing our authors: developmental and structural editing of fiction in the US) , but I think we were all stopped in our tracks not just by the revelation that a number of New York editors preferred to edit on screen using four screens (surprising as that was) but by the fact that in the US it is not uncommon for a manuscript to go through seven or even eight rounds of editing. Some of these are done by the agent, some by the editor. While too little editorial attention is clearly undesirable, it’s impossible not to wonder whether having too much may create a new set of problems, with too many cooks spoiling the broth.

Nevertheless, whatever challenges the profession of editing faces in Australia, having spent time with the editors at the REP it’s impossible not to feel optimistic.  Australian literature has skilled, sensitive and passionate hands to assist it into the world.

This article originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books on 16 June 2017.

Michael Sala The Restorer

Why would a woman return, with her children, to a relationship she believes to be unsafe? And if that decision leads to catastrophe, is she to blame? Or is she the victim?

Questions of agency lie at the heart of Michael Sala’s second novel. His first, The Last Thread, won considerable critical acclaim when it was published in 2012, and The Restorer shares many of its characteristics – there is the Newcastle setting, the mother who is a nurse, the impact of the mother’s relationships on her children, and the assurance of the writing. In these respects The Restorer could be seen as the distilled essence of its predecessor.

But where The Last Thread ranged widely over continents and decades, and was told from the point of view of the son, The Restorer confines itself to Newcastle and the span of a year or so around 1989 – the year of the Newcastle earthquake and the murder of 14-year-old Leigh Leigh at Stockton Beach – and is told from the point of view of eight-year-old Daniel’s teenage sister, Freya, and his mother, Maryanne.

We know from the opening pages that this will be the story of a catastrophe – we are shown the flashing red and blue lights of emergency vehicles outside the family’s home, and then taken back to the moment when they first arrived at the derelict house near the beach in Newcastle. The father, Roy, is a builder, and the plan is to restore the house and the marriage – Roy and Maryanne have been separated for year, and this is to be their fresh start.

However, like the old mining tunnels that run beneath all the houses in the area, there are subterranean issues in the marriage that remain unresolved.

It is a testament to Sala’s skills that despite that early glimpse of the story’s outcome, the tension is maintained throughout. In this respect it’s a bit like watching a car crash – you know things are going to end badly but you cannot look away. When it comes, the conclusion is undeniably powerful.

But the novel is also a resonant character study of mother and daughter. Each keeps secrets from the other, and both keep secrets from Roy.

Freya would have much preferred that they had stayed in Sydney with her grandmother, and is repelled by the state of the house when they arrive. She acts out her unhappiness, skipping school, smoking pot, shoplifting and binge drinking at parties. Eventually a teacher tries to talk to her: “You need to take charge … we can’t always control what happens around us, but we get to choose what all of that makes us … You have more control than you think.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Richard, their concerned neighbour, and he tells Maryanne: “[Y]ou might be making choices, but they’re the kind of choices, I don’t know, a cow makes when it’s being herded into a corral.”

In her work as a nurse at the nearby hospital Maryanne is skilled, confident and respected. She stands up to the doctors if she believes one of her patients is in danger. Yet at home she seems struck by a kind of emotional exhaustion.

Why does Maryanne give Roy another chance? Even as they leave Sydney she feels her certainty slipping away. Does she really believe that this is best for her children, as she tells Freya? Is it because of her mother? Her father? Because she married too young and cannot now forge a path for herself without him? Or is it all some terrible folie à deux?

In telling the novel from Maryanne’s and Freya’s points of view, Roy’s motivations are largely unexamined. He remains an unsettling presence beyond the control of any of them, despite what Maryanne likes to think.

The landscape of Newcastle’s cliffs and beaches is strongly present in the book, as is violence towards women – one of Freya’s classmates is encircled and spat on by a group of boys, and, like the real-life Stockton murder, a girl in the year below Freya is killed at a party.

This is a sensitively rendered novel with a fine eye for emotional and physical detail. The questions it raises are as disturbing as they are compelling.

This review first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 19 May 2017.

Two recent biographies of Australian women

I love a good biography. During my career I have been fortunate to publish two award-winners: Jill Roe’s Stella Miles Franklin and Nadia Wheatley’s The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift. Each was written by a trained historian, each involved a mountain of research, and each took over 20 years to write. They exemplify some of the difficulties of writing biography in Australia: to produce a work that is authoritative, carefully crafted and thoroughly researched takes a long time, and mostly publishers’ advances are modest and the writing has to be financed by other work.

The traditional biography unfolds in more or less chronological order as the biographer assembles facts about the subject and her times, weighing evidence, offering interpretations when they can, leaving open questions when they can’t.

Two recent books about Australian women upend this traditional model in different ways.

Grantlee Kieza’s Mrs Kelly: The astonishing life of Ned Kelly’s mother, in fact spends more of its 500-odd pages on Ned, his associates, the extended Kelly/Quinn/Lloyd families – and what feels like every moment of the often incompetent police pursuit of Ned and his gang during the Kelly Outbreak – than it does on Ellen Kelly. There are even sketches of the unedifying life of Ned Kelly’s hangman. Told in a lively present tense, for all its racy readability it nevertheless is not a book with Ellen Kelly at its centre.

To add insult to injury, Mrs Kelly’s raven hair (mentioned several times in the text) is rendered chestnut on the cover.

Perhaps the author began his book intending to write about Ellen Kelly, but too late discovered there was not enough material for one, or that while all the action was happening, his subject was in gaol. Or perhaps he really wanted to write a book about the Kelly Gang all along, and calling it Mrs Kelly was simply a way to promote a familiar story with a fresh angle.

Kerry Davies’s book A Wife’s Heart is subtitled The untold story of Bertha and Henry Lawson, and it paints a sad picture of the breakdown of the marriage of one of Australia’s most famous poets. Unlike Ellen Kelly, who was illiterate, Bertha left a trove of letters as well as writing her own account of the marriage, My Henry Lawson. One of the pleasures of the book is the way it makes use of the letters, and the insights they offer into Bertha’s personality.

Bertha Bredt was raised in a radical family. The month before she married Henry in April 1896, her younger sister married Jack Lang, who would go on to become premier of New South Wales. At one point Bertha seems to have had some literary ambition of her own, as there is a reference to her sending a story to the Bulletin which isn’t published

Many of her letters to Henry vividly convey both her affection and concern for him, as well as her frustration with his inability to provide. Bertha suffered a mental breakdown when the family went to England; whether this was the result of loneliness, postnatal depression, the strain of poverty or all three is unclear.

 The Lawson marriage was plagued by financial difficulties – Henry may have had fame, but money was always a problem. And then there was his drinking. The book opens with an affidavit Bertha filed in the Matrimonial Causes Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of New South Wales in April 1903 accusing Henry of ‘cruelty towards me’, including that he ‘struck me in the face and about the body and blacked my eye and hit me with a bottle …’ This is followed by a letter from ‘Harry’ that begins ‘Girlie, Do try to forgive and forget.’

Henry Lawson had numerous spells in hospitals in an effort to stop drinking. Once the couple separated and his maintenance payments fell too far into arrears, he also had spells in Darlinghurst gaol, which he christened ‘Starvinghurst’.

However, the central theme of the book is single motherhood, and woven around Bertha’s experiences as a separated woman bringing up two children in the early 20th century are the author’s experiences of single parenthood in the 21st.

And for me this is where the book struggles. In the author’s account of her own experiences there is her supportive mother, there is paid employment, there are payments (albeit erratic) from her child’s father (who is not an alcoholic but an itinerant jazz musician), and she is living at a time when separation and single parenthood does not have the stigma that it did in Bertha’s day. This isn’t to say that single parenthood was easy for her – clearly it was not – but rather that the resonances one might expect from such a juxtaposition don’t seem to go much beyond the obvious: that marriage breakups are painful and raising a child/children alone is hard work.

Nevertheless, there is much fascinating material here. But I do wonder what is it about the Lawson women that invites authors to inject themselves into their stories. Brian Matthews’s biography of Bertha’s mother-in-law, Louisa Lawson, also features the biographer, who interrogates the anxieties of his lot as he attempts to piece together the life of his subject. When it was published in 1987, Louisa was acclaimed for revealing not only the life of Louisa Lawson but the art of biography itself.

Yet is it just a little unfair that these women, relegated to supporting roles in history – mother of the great man, wife of the great man – should have their lives examined not on their own terms but to illuminate their authors’ own concerns?

But then, don’t all biographies do that? All biographies pick and choose which episodes of a life to emphasise, which to elide, which to omit. We know the biographer chooses how the story is shaped. There are many ways to tell the story of a life. Perhaps in putting themselves into the work, these authors are exemplifying the obsession biography requires, and the result is more honest for it.

Peter Doyle Crooks Like Us

Peter Doyle seeks to unlock the stories behind this extraordinary collection of police mug shots from the early 20th century.

Around 1910 the New South Wales Police began photographing some of the people who passed through Sydney’s Central and other inner-city police stations.

Peter Doyle has collected around 200 of the pictures here, and they present a remarkable and diverse slice of Sydney life. Doyle calls the photographs ‘informal mug shots’ and they are certainly a far cry from the expressionless police photographs we know today.

Some subjects are natty dressers, others are in their shirtsleeves, some appear to have no criminal record at all. Their expressions range from hard-eyed defiance to cool confidence, from resignation to the verge of tears. …

You can read the complete review in the Newtown Review of Books here. It originally appeared on 24 January 2017.


Sarah Hall & Peter Hobbs (eds) Sex and Death Stories

This anthology could have developed in many different ways – sex and death are the daily fodder of the tabloids, after all …  The settings range from Petina Gappah’s African ladies’ hair salon to Hobbs’ bleakly futurist fake nuclear reactor. What they all have in common is their intimacy; they describe deeply private moments that their protagonists may never be able to explain to themselves, let alone share.

This review was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 21 January 2017. You can read the full review here.

My top books of 2016

The Natural Way of Things, Charlotte Wood

This year was Charlotte Wood’s year, with The Natural Way of Things winning not only the Stella Prize but also sharing the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction. It’s a book of considerable power, beautifully written, and has made a significant contribution to the ongoing discussions about misogyny this year. I hesitated to pick it up when it first came out (which is why it is on my list this year rather than last year, when it was first published) – the subject of women being unjustly imprisoned seemed just too depressing, and I was not entirely convinced by the set-up (how have they come to be imprisoned? By whom?) But within pages I was hooked and found it not only a compelling page-turner but rich in its delineation of character and vivid in its evocation of the landscape. Make no mistake, this is challenging material, but Charlotte Wood has crafted it into a novel that burns brightly and its energy is difficult to resist.

An Isolated Incident, Emily Maguire

An Isolated Incident also deals with issues of misogyny and violence towards women. It subverts the usual tropes of crime fiction by refusing to dwell on the details of the victim’s death (and it’s true, what you imagine is always worse), and instead keeps its gaze firmly on those trying to cope in the wake of the crime. Chris, the victim’s sister, is a compelling mix of feistiness and grief and her voice is pitch perfect. I wrote a more detailed response to the novel here.

The Long View, Elizabeth Jane Howard

Earlier this year I read Hilary Mantel’s article in the Guardian about Elizabeth Jane Howard, and sought out The Long View (first published in 1956). It is considered by many to be Howard’s finest novel, and it is not difficult to see why it is so admired. Technically it is superbly controlled, as the narrative proceeds backwards through the life of an unhappily married woman, and it is simultaneously sharp-eyed, compassionate and thought-provoking. Its world-view is very much of its time, but not uncritically so. The protagonist, Antonia, is expected to do little more than marry well, and despite her father being an academic, her education has equipped her for little else. Yet in its delicate unpeeling of a relationship, and what it leaves unsaid, it is timeless.

The Dyehouse, Mena  Calthorpe

1956 is also the year in which Australian Mena Calthorpe set her novel of inner-city factory life, The Dyehouse, which was first published in 1961. This has recently been reissued in the Text Classics series and has a handy introduction by Fiona Macfarlane that sets out some of the background of Mena Calthorpe’s life. Calthorpe had worked in factories herself, and brings liveliness and compassion to her stories of the workers in the dyehouse, from Hughie, who has given the dyehouse his working life and can mix dyes like a magician, to Patty the innocent young office girl who believes the boss when he says he’ll marry her. The manager, Renshaw, manipulative and mendacious, is himself beholden to the managers in the city. There is romance, corporate and individual bastardry, an unplanned pregnancy and a premature death. While the author has put a disclaimer at the front to say that the Macdonaldtown of the book bears no relation to any actual place, it’s clear that it’s set in what is now called Erskineville, next door to Newtown, once home to many factories. Told through the eyes of the different characters, the novel breathes life into each of them so that we care what happens to them.

The Midnight Watch, David Dyer

Finally, David Dyer’s fresh account of the sinking of the Titanic in this debut novel, had me dreaming of icy seas for some time after I had finished it. The conundrum at the novel’s heart is a perplexing and tragic one: how could the SS Californian, a mere 20 miles away, not have seen the Titanic’s distress rockets? How could it not have gone to help? I wrote a more detailed review here and pondered how we humans can have the capacity to refuse to see what is in front of us.

This was originally published in the Newtown Review of Books on 23 December 2016.


David Dyer The Midnight Watch

This debut novel asks why the Californian, a mere 20 miles away, did not come to the stricken Titanic’s aid.

What more could there possibly be to say about that extraordinary story of hubris, the Titanic? Surely we all know how it ends: how, in 1912 the biggest cruise liner in the world foundered on an unseasonal iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean in the early hours of the morning and 1500 people perished.

David Dyer’s triumph in this beautifully observed and gripping story is to illuminate a little-known aspect of the tragedy – that another ship, the Californian, was a mere 20 miles away in the hours before the Titanic finally sank and could have rendered assistance but didn’t – and to do it with sensitivity and a deep understanding of the sea (in his non-writing life he served in the merchant navy and worked as a lawyer specialising in maritime law). It also asks a larger question about how we respond when we see others in danger. How might we convince ourselves that something dreadful is not happening? Or that we cannot do anything? Or that we do not know?

History is littered with examples of those who chose not to know (tobacco companies and the link between their products and cancer, for example; Nauru).

The central mystery of the Californian’s inaction is neatly encapsulated the morning after the disaster by Cyril Evans, the ship’s Marconi telegraph operator:

Now his friend on the Birma was asking him directly, ‘Did your ship see the Titanic?’ He sensed the rhythm of ‘yes’ in his hand; he felt the tiny ripple of muscle in the forefinger that would send it. It would take but an instant, and the rest would follow in a few seconds more: ‘We saw her distress rockets.’ But he did not send them. His left hand slid over to clasp tightly his right and he sat still, head hanging low, waiting, wondering, thinking of the captain and Mr Stone. Why had they not gone to the Titanic during the midnight watch? There must be a reason, but he could not think of it.

On the Californian, Dyer’s focus is the ship’s Second Officer, Herbert Stone, who took the midnight watch between 12 and 4 am, the hours when the Titanic sent up her distress rockets. He evokes the depth of the cold that night, ‘the heavy, still air [that] soaked through to the skin as if it were liquid’, the moonless dark, and the smell of the ice in the sea.

Stone would have preferred a career as an English teacher, but he has made the best of being forced by his father to go to sea, and his copy of Moby-Dick is as much a guide to the sea for him as his officer training. He particularly admires the character of Starbuck and his loyalty to Captain Ahab.

But the Californian’s Captain Lord is no Ahab, and the difficult relationship between Stone and his captain goes some way to explaining what follows. Both are actual historical figures, and it’s clear from his author’s note at the end of the book that Dyer has based his novel on extensive research.

The novel is in three parts, and the first is told alternately from the point of view of Stone and directly in first person by a fictional character, the journalist John Steadman, who works for the Boston American.

Steadman has experienced tragedy in his own life with the death of his baby son some years earlier. Estranged from his wife, his sole joy is his daughter, Harriet, who has grown into a young woman campaigning for women’s suffrage. He has a gift for reporting on the dead, and has covered a number of maritime and other disasters, including the Triangle fire at the shirtwaist factory in Manhattan, which claimed the lives of nearly 150 workers:

I gave those girls a voice and returned them to the world of the living. Dead bodies are gone too soon in this country. People never look long enough upon a corpse, and whenever they do look they see only a blank nothingness, or otherwise a fearful vision of their own future. I don’t see these things – I see a very great richness in the present. It takes courage to look upon the dead. It’s not ghoulish.

When news first reaches Boston that the Titanic is in trouble, his editor immediately sends him to New York to report on the dead – ‘There are bodies here, John, I can smell ’em’ – though at this stage no one knows that the ship has sunk.

Steadman arrives at the offices of International Mercantile Marine, the owners of the Titanic’s White Star line, to hear the company’s vice president, Philip Franklin, report that all have been saved and that the Titanic is limping towards Halifax, where the company has organised trains to transport passengers on to New York. When the truth is finally received, it is devastating. Franklin calls the press into his office to read the Marconigram confirming the loss:

No one in the room spoke. I watched Franklin’s face, transfixed. I saw something reborn, something washed clean, something breathtakingly honest. In one word, I saw courage: the courage to face the world anew, courage to stare down the truth. ‘The Titanic,’ he said at last, his sobs subsiding, ‘has gone.’

When news comes that the Californian will be recovering the bodies, Steadman, determined to get the story first, makes it his target. From this point on, Steadman becomes obsessed with what did or didn’t happen on the Californian, with explaining the seemingly inexplicable. The second part of the novel is his account of the formal inquiries into the disaster, first in Washington and then in London, and his own inquiries in Liverpool (home to both Lord and Stone).

The third part, ‘Eight White Rockets’, is Steadman’s imagining of the experiences of a family of third-class passengers on the Titanic en route from England to a new life in Florida. It describes what would have happened to them that fateful night and returns the focus to the dead, reminding us just what has been at stake here.

Steadman is both a hard-drinking journalist and a progressive; he is supportive of his teenage daughter’s suffragette activity (touchingly, he believes the 20th century will belong to women), and ultimately chooses to write about the fate of the third-class passengers rather than the celebrities and millionaires who have received so much publicity. It is his dogged persistence that assembles the pieces of the puzzle and allows the story to unfold, and his eloquence that does so so movingly.

Here is his account of how, less than a week after the sinking, the liner Bremen comes across the bodies of the Titanic’s dead:

The Bremen’s passengers had seen a man in formal evening dress lashed to a door; a young man lying on a steamer chair; a girl tied to a wooden grating. Men and women clung to each other, others were still holding onto children ‘The sight was an awful one to gaze upon,’ said one passenger. ‘I saw the body of a woman with a life preserver strapped to her waist and the bodies of two little children clasped in her arms.’ What must it have been like for these people, I wondered, in those dark minutes after the Titanic left them?

This is a novel of multiple human failings, of stomach-turning stubbornness and lingering humanity. It takes the popular trope of ‘what if’ and ties it to these well-worn events with compassion and flair.

Within it, too, is the story of a world in the grip of change. Steam-powered ships such as the Titanic and the Californian have only recently replaced the great sailing ships; the Californian’s Captain Lord learned his craft under sail and has a poor opinion of those sailors, like Stone, who trained under steam. The Marconi telegraph is also new; if only the Titanic’s distress calls had been made a little earlier, telegraph operator Cyril Evans may have picked them up before he turned into bed at 11 pm. If only …

The Midnight Watch is David Dyer’s first novel, and its assurance suggests it will not be his last. It will be interesting to observe whether the sea will continue to be his subject, but whatever arena he chooses, he is a writer to watch.

David Dyer The Midnight Watch 2016 Penguin Hamish Hamilton PB 336pp $32.99

This review was originally published in the Newtown Review of Books on 23 August 2016

Emily Maguire An Isolated Incident

Emily Maguire combines a page-turner with a provocative reflection on violence against women.

Emily Maguire’s latest novel tells the story of the aftermath of the murder of a young woman, aged-care worker Bella Michaels, in the little town of Strathdee, somewhere off the Hume Highway in rural New South Wales. It is narrated alternately by Bella’s older sister Chris, and from the point of view of May, a Sydney journalist who comes to Strathdee to cover the case. The murder is particularly brutal (we aren’t given the details, but the ghost of Anita Cobby hovers just offstage) and there are no immediate suspects.

But what drives the story is not so much what happened to Bella, but what will happen to Chris.

This is far more than a page-turning crime drama, though it is also that. Maguire’s focus is on those left behind, the often unacknowledged victims of violent crimes, and roiling beneath it all is a bigger picture of accepted, commonplace and insidious attitudes to women. We do find out whodunnit in the end, but in this context it’s almost a footnote.

The novel holds a mirror up to the casual denigration of women. These are things every woman has experienced and is encouraged to ‘deal with’ and not make a fuss about: things like insulting language (being referred to as a ‘gash’, for example), threatening behaviour (such as being stalked), and dismissive assumptions (‘asking for it’, etc.).

When, just days after Bella’s death, May tells the local policeman that while out for a jog she’s been tailed for blocks by a strange man in a car, the policeman guesses who is responsible and tells her:

‘… he’s all piss and wind. If it happens again, tell him to bugger off, give him the finger, something like that and he’ll go on his way … He’s harmless …’

Do these attitudes explain a terrible crime like Bella’s murder? Towards the end of the novel May recalls being sent scary pictures by a boy in her class at school –pornographic drawings he’d done of her – and muses:

This had nothing to do with what happened to Bella and what happened to Bella had nothing to do with Tegan Miller [a Strathdee woman killed by her husband] and none of it had to do with the rich Sydney housewife left out to rot in the street which had nothing to do with the Nigerian girls stolen as sex slaves or the Indian woman eviscerated on a bus or the man grabbing women off the streets of Brunswick.

None of it connected, she knew, and yet, and yet, it felt like it.

Surely Emily Maguire chose the title of her novel with deliberate irony. These sorts of killings are often described as isolated incidents, meaning they are not the work of a serial killer. But they are not isolated; they are part of a pattern of violence against women that knows no barriers of class, education or geography.

However, the novel is not a crude anti-men polemic. It is a nuanced portrait of a group of flawed characters, male and female, responding to a tragedy.

Chris encapsulates the complexity at the heart of it: smart, vulnerable, angry, self-aware, she works as a barmaid in the truckies’ pub. She hears this kind of talk regularly, but ignores it and leans forward to show off her generous cleavage to encourage tips. She could get work at the smarter hotel in the middle of town, but she likes the truckies, feels comfortable where she is, even though the pay is lousy, and falls into casual prostitution for extra cash. (Something the police are salaciously keen to seize on as they investigate her sister’s death.)

When finally the persistent May gets to interview Chris, she remarks on Chris’s relationships with the men in the pub:

‘You obviously really like men … It’s so unusual and you don’t even realise it. You don’t realise how much most men dislike women. And knowing that, most women can’t relax around men the way you do. Can’t let ourselves show that we like them even if we really do.’

‘Ah. That’s a different thing, though. I like ’em fine, but I’m never relaxed, not fully. It’s like with dogs. All the joy in the world, but once you’ve seen a labrador rip the face off a kid, you can’t ever forget what they’re capable of.’

When she was a toddler, Chris saw just what a labrador could do when one attacked her cousin Kylie. As a teenager she also saw what men could do when her mother took up with an abusive boyfriend called Brett. As adults the younger Bella took a parental attitude towards Chris, but when Bella was little it was Chris who took her from the house to escape Brett’s violence.

Their fathers absent, their mother dead, the sisters only have each other and consequently have shared a special bond. Little wonder Chris’s grief is all-consuming.

May’s story provides much of the backdrop, as she interviews various locals and tries to paint a fuller picture of the town and what has happened. She also tussles with where to draw the line in reporting a crime like this. Is she exploiting a tragedy or performing a public service in pursuing the story? In pursuing Chris? How much is the public entitled to know? Chris has her own views:

I was making coffee when my phone rang. Unknown number, but I answered it anyway. I’d never do that now, but this was early days. I didn’t get that a bunch of strangers saw themselves as lead characters in a thrilling story which began with the discovery of a pretty dead girl, who happened to have been played by my sister. Feel free to take that personally, by the way.

Chris is a compelling character, utterly believable in her earthiness and honesty. Her grief is raw and unflinching and it’s impossible not to be moved by it. In contrast the dilemmas of May’s life, interesting as they are in their own way, inevitably pale. Yet May provides a necessary counterpoint to the intensity of Chris’s narrative. May seeks to understand what has happened and why; Chris’s task is to accept what has happened – that her sister is gone.

Within its gripping storytelling An Isolated Incident raises many disturbing questions about men and women and about attitudes to what can seem the inevitability of violence by one sex upon the other. But above all this is a powerful and provocative examination of grief, and in Chris Emily Maguire has created a character who resounds in the imagination.

Emily Maguire An Isolated Incident Picador 2016 PB 352pp $32.99

This review was originally published in the Newtown Review of Books on 7 June 2016.